SSU Forum with Professor Seyom Brown

Date: Tuesday, November 28 2017, 10:30 - 12:00
Venue: Seminar Room, 3rd Floor, Ito International Research Center
Subject: “The New US Debate over Nuclear Weapons”
Lecture: Seyom Brown, Professor, Brandeis University
Language: English
hosted by: Security Studies Unit, Policy Alternatives Research Institute, the University of Tokyo
Abstract: Dr. Brown will contend that the current debate in the United States over nuclear weapons is polarizing into an argument between the nuclear weapons abolitionists and the nuclear weapons modernizers. He will criticize both approaches as destabilizing, and the debate as paralyzing effective policy making. He will urge a third approach which relies on strengthened non-nuclear capabilities for credible deterrence and war-fighting if deterrence fails. He hopes to elicit reflections by his Japanese interlocutors on the strategic implications for Japan.

The SSU was honoured to host a talk delivered by Seyom Brown, Professor Emeritus of Politics at Brandeis University, entitled “The New US Debate over Nuclear Weapons”.

Professor Kiichi Fujiwara, Director of the Policy Alternatives Research Institute and of SSU chaired the event. He introduced the guest speaker as an outstanding author who has produced some of the leading texts in the fields of national security policy, particularly the well-known book The Faces of Power, which has seen several editions. Professor Brown worked both as practitioner and as academic at numerous institutions such as the Rand Corporation, the Brookings Institution, and Harvard’s Center for Science and International Affairs.

Professor Brown presented an overview of the complex issue of US nuclear strategies. He remarked that in the current international environment there is a kind of double movement. On the one hand, one can see the intensification of a nuclear strategic race between great powers, but on the other hand also the rise of a powerful “ban the bomb” movement, aimed at the abolition of nuclear weapons worldwide. This movement has managed to score an historic victory with the adoption by the UN Assembly of the “Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons” in July 2017, which may soon become international law. Meanwhile, the intensification of the strategic arms race is producing a renewed interest among US strategists for limited strategic nuclear war. The abolitionist movement on the other had pushes for a completely de-nuclearised US defence strategy.

This debate appears as something new, but in reality it is not. Already during the Truman administration (1945-1953) the US proposal for global nuclear disarmament was rejected by the Soviet Union. Inside the US government there were at the same time those who argued for a preventive nuclear strike against the Soviets before the USSR acquired its own nuclear weapons. President Truman himself was pressured to use nuclear weapons during the Korean War, but he refused to do so. Some of the most prominent strategists of the time, including Paul Nitze and Dan Acheson were very concerned that by 1954 the Soviets would acquire their own nuclear arsenal which, because of their superiority in conventional weapons, would give them an overall strategic advantage.

Even so, the Eisenhower administration (1953-1961) announced a nuclear-reliant grand strategy of massive retaliation to counter local threats by the Soviets around the globe. The massive retaliation strategy was highly controversial (even within the Eisenhower administration) with the opposition party, the Democrats, arguing that it amounted to a very dangerous policy of “suicide or surrender”. And the Eisenhower administration did brandish nuclear weapons during several international crises, such as the confrontations with China over Taiwan, also with the Soviets over Berlin, even though if it is difficult to know whether President Eisenhower and Secretary Khrushchev were each only “bluffing”.

The Kennedy administration renounced the strategy of massive retaliation. And they rejected the corollary concept of a NATO “nuclear tripwire” according to which Soviet initiatives were to be countered initially with forward-deployed tactical nukes, which would ignite the full-scale strategic nuclear war. By contrast, the Kennedy administration’s flexible response strategy, was supposed to provide the United States and its allies effective (at best, superior) fighting capabilities at every step on the escalation ladder, including conventional warfare.

U.S. Defense Secretary McNamara initially tried to promote this more flexible strategy, even for strategic levels, announcing in his 1962 speech to allied defense ministers in Athens (Greece) that to restore the otherwise declining credibility of US nuclear deterrence threats, the US was adopting a strategy which excluded the targeting of population centres with nuclear weapons.

But McNamara changed his mind in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1962). Nuclear war had to be absolutely avoided, not fought. Accordingly, the right strategic posture for deterring nuclear war would restrict US strategic nuclear forces to those necessary to assure the destruction of Soviet centers of population and industry. This US capability of assured destruction should be able to survive the most effective strategic blow the Soviets could deliver, guaranteeing it would outweigh any gains the Soviets could hope to gain by their nuclear aggression. The sole purpose of US nuclear forces would be to deter the enemy from using nuclear weapons. And he came to believe it would be good if the Soviets also assumed the same posture -- the famous “Mutual Assured Destruction” concept, or MAD, whereby each side would hold the other’s population hostage.

McNamara persuaded President Johnson to convince the Soviets that both sides should abandon “counterforce” nuclear strategies, in favor of the “counter-value” concept in MAD. Soviet Premier Kosygin was extremely skeptical, but McNamara managed to convince the Soviets of the beneficial effects for global stability. However, in successive years a number of crises, especially the Soviet 1968 repression of the reform movement in in Czechoslovakia, deferred the adoption and implementation of MAD..

Richard Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968 with totally different views from those of McNamara. Nixon and his advisors had championed nuclear superiority, not parity with the USSR. But upon taking office they had to face resistance in Congress to a further arms buildup – Congress being predominantly anti-war (in the aftermath of the Vietnam War). So National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger made a policy U-turn, whereby the US now moved towards an institutionalization of MAD. This led to the 1972 SALT accord and the AMB treaties, and the acceptance of MAD as the cornerstone of détente. The policy was continued under the Ford administration (1974-77).

Surprisingly, it was under the Carter administration (1977-1981) that the US policy regarding nuclear war changed considerably. Although the President initially intended to expand a peaceful approach to the USSR and secure mutual deterrence, his advisors convinced him that the USSR was developing capabilities for fighting nuclear war in the case of deterrence failure. This led to the Presidential Directive 59 of 1980, which contained a policy of countervailing strategic options, and accordingly modified the SIOP (Single Integrated Operational Plan) nuclear options available to the President. The US nuclear strategy since then has become a strategy of MAD plus counterforce options, and this state of affairs has not changed significantly since then.

However, with the end of the Cold War, support has grown for the proposition that the US should substantially de-nuclearize its grand strategy. And in 2007, the Wall Street Journal published a statement by former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sam Nunn endorsing the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. Then in 2009 President Obama articulated the idea in his famous speech in Prague that the world should move towards the abolition of nuclear weapons, but at the same time Obama made clear that, as long as those weapons exist, the US will maintain a robust nuclear arsenal in order to deter strategic attacks against the United States or its allies and partners. This position was re-stated and elaborated in the administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. Moreover, the Nuclear Posture Review rejected proposals that the administration state affirm that the “sole purpose” of nuclear weapons is deterrence of nuclear attack.

The Trump administration still has not issued a Nuclear Posture document, but this should happen in the next few weeks. It is unlikely that US nuclear strategy will significantly change, and it will most probably reaffirm the existing extended deterrence and defense posture. Already under Obama, a series of programs for the modernization of the arsenal was proposed as part of the political deal with Congress for the approval of the New START treaty in 2010. Nuclear modernization, it was pledged, would not mean new weapons, only improving existing systems. But this pledge is not being adhered to, as several new systems are scheduled to be introduced in the next decades, particularly a new missile to replace the Minuteman III and new aircraft to replace the B52 strategic bombers. Highly controversial is the Air Force plan to procure 1,000 new Long Range Standoff (LRSO) Cruise Missiles, but all indications are it will get Trump’s authorization.

What will be the role of all these weapons? Most probably it will still be “MAD plus”, expanded by acknowledging a role for nuclear weapons not only to respond to nuclear attacks, but also other threats, including cyberattacks. This concept is increasingly assumed to be necessary for a credible deterrence.

The current nuclear strategy is however a somewhat unclear one. Recent think tank publications call for a “measured retaliation” capability featuring low yield nuclear warheads. Others, catering to President Trump’s proclivities, argue that deterrence can emerge from ambiguity and unpredictability.

Professor Brown expressed skepticism in relation to these tendencies. The danger of this presumably flexible approach is that it provides little guidance to the enemy about what the US is contemplating in the case of crisis, which may push the enemy towards pre-emption, instead of restraint.

What is needed in Professor Brown’s view is not reliance on the treaty abolishing nuclear weapons, which the United States and other nuclear-armed powers are unlikely to sign in the foreseeable future. But the United States could and should, Brown contends, take the lead in the renunciation of all strategies of mass destruction, while relying on other strategies and already-existing capabilities for deterrence and defense, making nuclear weapons obsolete.